JFK’s image shines on despite contradictions
Boston • Four days a week, David O’Donnell leads a 90-minute "Kennedy Tour" around Boston that features stops at government buildings, museums, hotels and meeting halls.
Tour-goers from throughout the United States and abroad, who may see John F. Kennedy as inspiration, martyr or Cold War hero, hear stories of his ancestors and early campaigns, the rise of the Irish in state politics, the odd fact that Kennedy was the only president outlived by his grandmother.
Yet at some point along the tour, inevitably, questions from the crowd shift from politics to gossip.
"Someone will ask, ‘Did Jack Kennedy have an affair with Marilyn Monroe?’ With this woman? That woman?" explains O’Donnell, who has worked for a decade in the city’s visitors bureau. Those asking forgive the infidelities as reflecting another era, he says. "It’s something people, in an odd way, just accept."
The Kennedy image, the "mystique" that attracts tourists and historians alike, did not begin with his presidency and is in no danger of ending 50 years after his death. Its journey has been uneven but resilient — a young and still-evolving politician whose name was sanctified by his assassination, upended by discoveries of womanizing, hidden health problems and political intrigue, and forgiven in numerous polls that place JFK among the most beloved of former presidents.
The last half century has demonstrated the transcendence of Kennedy’s appeal. It’s as if we needed to learn the worst before returning to the qualities that defined Kennedy at his best — the smile and the wavy hair, the energy and the confidence, the rhetoric and the promise.
"He had a gift for rallying the country to its best, most humane and idealistic impulses," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro, who cites such Kennedy achievements as the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty and the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"He’s become more and more of an iconic figure as the years have passed," says presidential biographer Robert Dallek, whose "Camelot’s Court" is one of many Kennedy books out this fall.
"I think it’s partly, of course, because of the assassination. But that doesn’t really account for why he has this phenomenal hold on the public." President William McKinley, he noted, was assassinated in 1901, "but 50 years after his death hardly anyone remembered who he was."
Boston is the official home for Kennedy memories, starting at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and echoing at landmarks throughout the area — the small, shingled house in Brookline where he was born and the Kennedy park in Cambridge that extends along the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the statue on the grounds of the Massachusetts State House and the corner table at the nearby Omni Parker House Hotel, where Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.
But thousands of Kennedy buildings, busts and plaques can be found around the country, from the grandeur of Washington’s Kennedy Center to the scale of New York City’s JFK Airport to the oddity of a Kennedy golf course in Aurora, Colo. (He publicly avoided predecessor Dwight Eisenhower’s beloved leisure sport but actually played it well).
"He stands out among all the modern presidents," says historian Larry J. Sabato, whose book, "The Kennedy Half Century," has just been published. "Franklin Roosevelt was more consequential, and Harry Truman may have been, too. But Kennedy overshadows them all. He’s the one president from the post-World War II era who could appear on the streets now and fit right in."
Kennedy, born in 1917, was the second son, and one of nine children, of business tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy. No self-made man put greater pressure on his children than did the elder Kennedy. When first son Joseph Jr. was killed during World War II, Jack became the designated heir. Himself a Navy veteran and survivor of a collision with a Japanese destroyer, he would write to his friend Paul Fay that, once the war was over, "I’ll be back here with Dad trying to parlay a lost PT boat and a bad back into a political advantage."
Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, at age 29, was a senator by age 35 and was soon being mentioned as a candidate for national office.
"From the time Jack first ran for Congress, his father had taught him everything from wearing a suit and the best way to cut his hair, how to appear youthful and wise and serious at the same time," says David Nasaw, whose biography of Joseph P. Kennedy came out last year. Still, Nasaw described JFK’s relationship with his father as a "partnership," in which he didn’t hesitate to differ from the elder Kennedy.
JFK was a public figure years before he ran for office. "Why England Slept," released in 1940, was a book-length edition of a thesis he wrote at Harvard about the British in the years before World War II. An introduction was provided by one of the country’s foremost image makers, Time magazine publisher Henry R. Luce. "You would be surprised how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come," Joseph Kennedy had advised his sons.
The JFK narrative was well in place for his presidential run in 1960: a handsome, witty and athletic World War II hero and family man who vowed to revitalize the country, which for eight years had been presided over by the grandfatherly Eisenhower.
The multimedia story began in childhood with newsreels and newspaper coverage of the smiling Kennedy brood, and it continued with books, photographs, movies and finally television — notably the telegenic JFK’s presidential debates with Republican Richard Nixon.